“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
- TS Elliot
There's a story about Picasso that I really like. He was sitting on a bench in a park when a woman noticed him. She walked up to Picasso and asked if he could draw her a portrait. Picasso paused for a moment, looked at the woman, and agreed. He removed a pencil and his sketchbook from his bag and began drawing a portrait for the woman. When he finished he handed it to her and said "That will be $5,000." The woman was confused and said, "but that only took you 5 minutes" to which Picasso replied, "no, it took me my whole life."
I have no idea if the story is true, but either way, it's a great reminder of what we sometimes forget. In Picasso's pursuit of excellence, he had to make incredible sacrifices and put in a lot of time to develop his skills. There's something very romantic about that which draws me in. I'm intrigued by people who are on a crazy path of extreme dedication and focus. People who have a singular obsession and carry it for their entire lives; those who take baby steps for years around a specific craft, no matter what that craft may be, fascinate me. Not too long ago my parents came to visit me in San Francisco and we went to watch a Cirque Du Soleil show. I remember being in awe of the skills and athleticism of the performers, their abilities to control their bodies, their movements — perfect. I can't begin to imagine the minutes, days, and years each individual performer sacrificed to get to this point, but I'm really glad people like that are out there. The sacrifice to get up each and every day and push yourself and your body to a place where most people don't want to go, the ability to override discomfort and override what your body is telling you not to do, all in the pursuit of greatness. We see these sacrifices and the journeys these individuals go on in every discipline ranging from athletes to artists to entrepreneurs.
No matter the craft, the path is the same. The type of people who shoot for the top of what they do is admirable, courageous, and rare. What they all have in common is that they make that choice, the choice to be great. I fundamentally believe that greatness is a choice. It doesn't just happen or simply fall upon you. Greatness is a choice you make, and the decision to be great trumps all. However, it's not a choice that you make once, It's a choice that you have to wake up and make every single day. I could declare that the next time I'm in the gym, I'll walk to the pull-up bar and do 100 pull-ups. That's not something I can just easily do; I’d have to put in a lot of time beforehand and train leading up to my 100 pull-ups attempt. The decision to do 100 pull-ups is one that I have to make every day. So in the pursuit of greatness, how do you hold yourself accountable and summon the willpower to make that choice every day?
It's not an easy question to answer because all of us are leading separate lives, dreaming our own dreams and fighting our own battles. One thing that is for sure is that the path to greatness is long and people often lose their way. It's hard to be in the trenches all day and we all need to come up for air. Here are two ways I think we can do even when the ultimate goal is so far away. First, realizing that greatness comes at a cost and that there is beauty in paying that cost and it can be beneficial. There is an inherent link between suffering and progress, pain, and beauty. The beauty lies in the fact that happiness doesn't exist without sadness and each one fuels the other. Second, a lot of artists talk about arts gratis arts or art for art's sake. When painting a picture, rather than focusing on the end product itself, paint simply because you enjoy the process. Don't be too attached to the outcome, sometimes you can't look too far ahead to your goal because you need to be fully present in your journey to get there. The journey is in most cases, the destination. Diamonds are made under pressure, for most of us the only way to withstand that pressure is to find love for the process and trust it. But more than that, let the process be the goal because the process in and of itself is beautiful.
“I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail.”
- Adrienne Rich
In your journey to greatness, you'll also experience setbacks. Everybody does. When you do, you can always change your perspective. It's natural to feel sad and emotional when you face setbacks. But you can't sit around feeling sorry for yourself, there are a lot of people who are good at bitching and complaining — you will be paralyzed by that and use it as an excuse to never live your life. What I've realized recently is that there is a difference between people you can count on and people who will fall apart when the moment is too big. Life is tragic. There will be awful moments in your life and when they arrive you can choose to be dwarfed by that moment or you can rise to the occasion. Who you are is dependent on how you react in those moments. As Viktor Frankl writes “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”Again, it's normal to feel that everything is hard but you have to keep going. Too many people use these moments as an excuse as to why they are failures. Just get up and go, just go. Keeping this in mind in my journey has been tremendously helpful.
What I've also observed is that if you're working on something new, you're likely to experience setbacks more often than people who follow their routines. There are, by definition, more unknowns and more to overcome in the frontier. This is true in art, entrepreneurship, academics, athletics, and almost every other field of performance. But the frontier is the only place where new knowledge is being created. In my own career working with founders, I've seen that if what they're working on isn't a little scary to talk about, if there isn't some level of ridicule or backlash then they're not working on anything new. Entrepreneurship is the act of creating something new and if it's universally accepted it can't be new. As a result, if you are one of the few out there working on creating new knowledge then you can expect to face more setbacks and hurdles than the everyday man. Keep that in mind along your climb to the top.
But above all else, once you get there, once you reach that summit, whatever that summit is for you, don't forget the person who you were when you started the journey. As Disney’s Bob Iger said:
"the moment you start to believe it all too much, the moment you look yourself in the mirror and see a title emblazoned on your forehead, you’ve lost your way. That may be the hardest but also the most necessary lesson to keep in mind, that wherever you are along the path, you’re the same person you’ve always been.”